This blog has been discontinued. See Adam Gonnerman for all future posts.

Wednesday, January 18, 2023

How Evangelicalism Dominated the United States

Midjourney AI
You really should read through the article "More people have noticed Christianity’s decline in America" by Cassidy McGillicuddy. It seems as though I've been reading many of the same books and articles as her, though she's managed to synthesize all of it far more coherently than me. I just want to comment on a few parts of her excellent writing on the topic of the decline of Christianity in the United States.

In Nonverts, Bullivant points out that America may have lagged behind other secularizing countries because of how patriotism got indelibly linked with intense Christian faith. To be atheistic, to criticize Christians’ stranglehold on government and culture for any reason, was to implicitly declare oneself a traitor—and even the enemy of all that was good. In particular, Americans linked communism, which was their big enemy during the Cold War, to atheism.

That's exactly what happened. During that time, to not be attending a church was pretty much the same as declaring oneself an atheist and potentially a communist, both of which were considered anti-patriotic. In the post-WWII era, there was no room for dissent when it came to declaring America 'great.' This was so much the case than many atheists reportedly found a safe haven in Unitarian churches. It gave them the appearance of respectable church-going, without the dogma or even necessary affirmation of faith in God. 

One of the Christian leaders who came to prominence in those same days, Billy Graham, became a powerful voice for decades by asserting the imagined links between faith, American-style democracy, and patriotism. The high-level politicians he advised, like Dwight Eisenhower, came to “evoke faith as a weapon against communism, just as Graham had done.” 

A few months ago I read "One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America" by Kevin M. Kruse and was shocked at a few points. One of the biggest learnings from this was the major role Billy Graham played in steering the United States into rampant patriotic evangelical Christianity. When he passed away in 2018 the media and some politicians kept referring to him as "America's pastor," and he became the first religious leader to lie in honor at the United States Capitol rotunda in Washington, D.C. I thought it was strange that he'd be called the nation's 'pastor' since he was in practice more of an evangelist, and his sermons were always evangelistic but not pastoral. As his son Franklin Graham took the spotlight more and more, I took deep offense at what I thought was a contrasting, hateful viewpoint coming from him. He seemed in practice nothing to me like his father. Now I know how wrong I was.

Billy Graham used every bit of influence he could muster to promote conservative evangelical hegemony. He was in deep with Richard Nixon, and while he may have softened some later in life, he was certainly a lifelong believer in the Republican Party and the necessary tie between Christianity and American patriotism. He should receive the lion's share of the credit for laying the foundation of Christian nationalism in the United States today.

Very quickly, the internet connected people. It also gave them spaces to build communities of their own that entirely lacked Christian control and oversight. In those spaces, doubting Christians could network with other doubters and find answers. Often, these were not the hand-waving “Sunday School answers” that their church leaders gave—or approved. When these Christians deconverted, their online communities provided them with space to deconstruct their beliefs and discuss their frustrations.

This is something I've heard time and again from ex-Mormons in particular. Before the internet it could be quite difficult to find opposing views to the religious faith in which one was raised, especially if the person lived in an area dominated by a particular religion. This is especially true of Utah, where a little over 60% of the population holds membership in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. This condition of being sheltered religiously holds true in other places as well though, such as the American South, where fully 76% identify as Christian. 34% of those are white evangelicals. In such places even the public libraries can be short on material that goes against the dominant local narrative. With the advent of the internet people have been able to find and share information, and critical thinkers with questions soon become doubters and, in many cases, unbelievers.

At the same time as McGillicuddy highlights, it isn't just about shared information. People have formed and found communities online that share their perspectives and identities. When I was in my early and mid-teens the consumer internet was still a few years away, so all my reading about other religious beliefs was very solitary. No one that I knew shared the same interest as me. Had the internet been available, I might have made a different decision than leaving the Roman Catholic Church for mainline  Protestantism and then evangelical Christianity, because in addition to information I could have found people to identify with and bounce ideas off of. This is vitally important now for the most vulnerable teens, such as LGBTQ+ youth who have religiously conservative parents. Conformity for them means fewer conflicts, while coming out while they are teens can lead to expulsion from the home or even being sent off to a Christian youth home in hopes of making them deconvert. The internet provides them access to support to keep it together, hopefully, until they are old enough to safely move away from home. 

When I was growing up I was taught that the United States was the "land of the free" and that we didn't have an established church. It was a point of pride. And yet, we had the next worst thing in a religio-political ideology that maintained coercive control over our lives. Most simply accepted it as the way things were. No more is this the case, and as far as I'm concerned, evangelical Christianity can't die out fast enough.